Jacques Cousteau produced some of the world’s greatest underwater videos, inspiring thousands of divers and filmmakers. If you are passionate about diving and would like to capture your own videos here are some of the key elements you must consider to start your underwater filming.
In recent years we have seen a succession of ever more efficient models for underwater filming: from the first SLR able to record video, the Nikon D90, we moved quickly to many models with impressive capabilities. The first digital SLR cameras able to shoot high definition video emerged in 2008. In just two short years these cameras revolutionized independent film making with their ability to deliver professional-looking video in an affordable and compact package. They are fast becoming the camera of choice for indie cinematographers around the world.
With today’s DSLRs, all photographers have the potential to make beautiful movies; many DSLRs give you opportunity to record Full HD Quality videos, at high ISO values with the possibility to set manually all the necessary parameters.
The primary obstacle faced by underwater filmmakers & photographers is the loss of color and contrast when submerged at any significant depth. The longer wavelengths of sunlight are absorbed quickly by the surrounding water; the deeper they are, the more color is absorbed. Red is the first color wavelength to be lost, disappearing altogether at about 3 meters. Then the color orange will be lost, followed by the yellow and so on. This means, that the deeper filmmakers go, the bluer and greener their underwater photos and videos will appear if not using a flash or strobe. The loss of color not only increases vertically through the water column, but also horizontally, so subjects further away from the camera will also appear colorless and indistinct. Water also reduces contrast, color and sharpness, which is why underwater it’s important to get very close to the target.
We decided to try the Nikon D3200 to shoot some underwater video, pairing it with the new housing produced by Nimar, the model Ni3D3200zM. The intent was to test our capability to realize an underwater video with an entry level kit (camera + housing).
The D3200 offers the capability to record HD (high-definition) movies that are up to 20 minutes in length, with or without sound. Movies are created in the MOV format, which means you can play them on your computer using most movie-playback programs. The underwater housing for your camera is arguably the most important item for underwater filmmaking. It is also the best investment you will make because it protects the camera from the hazardous elements of the underwater environment.
The large monitor of the D3200 is clearly visible through the housing in polycarbonate by Nimar; to start and stop recording video you have a special button located on the top, near the shutter button. To obtain good results, it will be necessary to set parameters of the camera. Nothing so complicated: thanks to the opportunity to move easily in the menus also underwater, we will always be able to choose the best “setup” for our shoot.
Settings used for shooting video with a NIKON D3200:
Video Standard: the first recording option to consider is the Video Mode option. Found on the Setup menu, this setting tells the camera whether you want your movies to adhere to the NTSC or PAL video standard. NTSC is used in North America; PAL is used in Europe and a few other countries. Your camera should already be set to match the system used in the country in which it was purchased, but it never hurts to check, especially because your decision affects what movie frame rate settings are available to you. (Don’t worry about what NTSC and PAL mean — they’re just acronyms for the technical names of the standards.)
Video resolution: Full HD with dimensions of 1920 x1080 pixels at 25fps
Three frame sizes (resolutions) are available and measured in pixels:
1920 x 1080: Produces a so-called Full HD (High-Definition) movie that has a 16:9 aspect ratio.
1280 x 720: Standard HD, also 16:9.
640 x 424: This setting gives you a regular definition (that is, not high-def) movie with an approximate aspect ratio of 3:2. (This smaller resolution can be useful for online videos.)
Frame rate (fps): The frame rate, measured in frames per second (fps), determines the smoothness of the playback. Assuming NTSC as the video standard, the following frame rate choices are available for the three frame sizes as follows:
1920 x 1080: 30 or 24 fps
1280 x 720: 60 fps
640 x 424: 30 fps
Frame rate settings are listed as 30p, 24p, and 60p on the camera screens
24 fps is the standard for motion pictures, giving your videos a softer, more movie-like look.
30 fps is the standard for most network broadcast TV and produces a crisper picture.
60 fps is often used for creating slow-motion footage.
For PAL, you can choose between 24p, 25p, and 50p instead of 24p, 30p, and 60p.
Movie Quality option (bit rate): for each combination of frame rate and size, you can also choose a High or Normal setting via the Movie Quality option. Your choice determines how much compression is applied to the video file, which in turn affects the bit rate, or how much data is used to represent one second of video, measured in Mbps (megabytes per second. Without getting too technical, it is important to know that not all video is the same. In addition to the obvious frame size differences, the important is how your video is compressed. All video cameras use compressed video except the most high end digital cinematography cameras: the easiest way to understand this is thinking of a JPEG file. You can have the same image size, but you can save it as a quality of 10 or 5. The image would look very similar, but if you started heavy corrections on the smaller file it would fall apart much quicker. The same is true with compressed video. The High setting results in a higher bit rate, which means better quality and larger files. Choose Normal for a lower bit rate and smaller files.
Picture control: thanks to Nikon’s Picture Control you can manage parameters such as sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. We opted for “Neutral”; any adjustments will be made in post production, when/where needed.
Normally, the camera automatically adjusts exposure for you during movie recording. Exposure is calculated using Matrix (whole frame) metering, regardless of which Metering mode setting is selected. But if you set the camera’s mode dial to M, S, A, or P you will have some control over exposure.
Shutter speed and ISO: If you enable the Manual Movie Settings option on the Movie Settings menu, you can control shutter speed, ISO and the aperture (f-stop). To set f-stop on M mode, press the Exposure Compensation button while rotating the Command dial.
The slowest shutter speed depends on your chosen frame rate. For 24p, 25p, and 30p, you can drop as low as 1/30 second; for 50p, 1/50 second; and for 60p, 1/60 second. We set 1/50, a setting consistent with the choice of working in a PAL 25p. Unlike underwater photography, the shutter speed will be almost always the same.
You can set the ISO value as low as 200 or as high as Hi 1. In the film days, ISO represented a film’s sensitivity to light. In digital cameras, ISO works similarly. Light that hits a photodiode is converted to a signal, and this signal is amplified. The higher the ISO, the more the signal is amplified. The net effect is that the camera appears to be more sensitive to light. Note that Auto ISO Sensitivity control doesn’t work in movie mode; the camera sticks with your selected setting regardless of the available light. You can adjust ISO via the Shooting menu or Info Edit screen. In general, cameras with larger sensors will have less noise at higher ISO’s. This is why a Nikon D800 photo can look good at ISO 800, where a photo from a compact camera at ISO 800 would look very noisy and grainy. [Note: maximum ISO for a D800 is 6400]. With our D3200 we moved in the range 200 – 400 during our test, starting from the working aperture and managing the consequent ISO sensitivity.
Camera override: Choose a shutter speed or ISO setting outside the stated ranges, and the camera will slap your hand and choose the closest in-range setting automatically.
Aperture (f-stop): You can adjust f-stop before recording if you set the Mode dial to A (aperture-priority autoexposure) or M (manual exposure). This option enables you to control depth of field (DOF) in your movies; depth of field is an important concept as is the area of a photo that is in focus. Areas outside of the DOF are blurry, with the blurriness increasing the further away they are. The sharpest area of the photo is the location your camera focused on. As the aperture is made smaller, the F-stop increases in number (e.g. F8, F11, F16) and the amount of light that enters through the lens decreases. So remember – a small F-stop (e.g. – 2.8) is a large aperture. As the F-stop number gets larger (e.g. – F22), the aperture gets smaller. Being the light so conditioned underwater, you can easily understand how important it is to set up the correct aperture. We moved in the range F8 to F16, depending on the need.
White balance: getting your white balance correct is extremely important when you shoot videos. The reason for adjusting White Balance is to get the colors in your images as accurate as possible. Unlike RAW files, the color information is burned into the video. If you use auto white balance, it will change depending on what is in the scene. Although this may seem like a good thing, it makes it very difficult to cut together in post production. By manually setting the White Balance underwater, you will compensate for colors that have been lost. A white slate is ideal for setting the White Balance: if it appears yellow, because of the room’s lighting, you need to set the White Balance to it. We set up Automatic White Balance in order to test the features of Nikon D3200 underwater, an extreme situation, during which D3200 really impressed.
Built-in microphone with automatic sensitivity: during our test we observed the built-in microphone always worked correctly even underwater and inside the case. The sensitivity function automatically handled correctly the audio, allowing the camera to record the sounds of bubbles emitted underwater by breathing and other sounds.
The overall results? Impressive: with a simple “setup” as described, we were able to obtain excellent quality footage, with dominant and very realistic colors, using only ambient light.
Some extra tips: when using intensely the video mode with live view, it is recommended to replace the battery every dive (assuming scuba diving of about an hour in duration). It is essential to use a memory card with excellent quality, suitable for recording video clips and with at least 16 GB storage capacity. A spare card is recommended. The gorilla tripod can be very useful and practically indestructible, even underwater.
A final advice. To learn to create appealing videos, first change your mindset: don’t simply film a dive – dive in order to film!
Ready to dive & film?
You can see a sample video realized after diving in Fujairah on: